David Reid | The Brazen Age: New York City and the American Empire: Politics, Art, and Bohemia | Pantheon | March 2016 | 31 minutes (8,514 words)
The excerpt below is adapted from The Brazen Age, by David Reid, which examines the “extraordinarily rich culture and turbulent politics of New York City between the years 1945 and 1950.” This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.
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Probably I was in the war.
—NORMAN MAILER, Barbary Shore (1951)
A hideous, inhuman city. But I know that one changes one’s mind.
In march 1946 the young French novelist and journalist Albert Camus traveled by freighter from Le Havre to New York, arriving in the first week of spring. Le Havre, the old port city at the mouth of the Seine, had almost been destroyed in a battle between its German occupiers and a British warship during the Normandy invasion; huge ruins ringed the harbor. In his travel journal Camus writes: “My last image of France is of destroyed buildings at the very edge of a wounded earth.”
At the age of thirty-two this Algerian Frenchman, who had been supporting himself with odd jobs when the war began, was about to become very famous. By 1948, he would become an international culture hero: author of The Stranger and The Plague, two of the most famous novels to come out of France in the forties, and of the lofty and astringent essays collected in The Myth of Sisyphus.
Camus’s visit to the United States, sponsored by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs but involving no official duties, was timed to coincide with Alfred A. Knopf’s publication of The Stranger in a translation by Stuart Gilbert, the annotator of James Joyce’s Ulysses. In the spring of 1946 France was exporting little to the United States except literature. Even most American readers with a particular interest in France knew of Camus, if at all, as a distant legend, editor of the Resistance newspaper Combat and an “existentialist.”
Reviewing The Stranger in the New Yorker, Edmund Wilson, usually omniscient, confessed that he knew absolutely nothing about existentialism except that it was enjoying a “furious vogue.” If there were rumored to be philosophical depths in this novel about the motiveless murder of an Arab on a North African beach, they frankly eluded him. For Wilson the book was nothing more than “a fairly clever feat”—the sort of thing that a skillful Hemingway imitator like James M. Cain had done as well or better in The Postman Always Rings Twice. America’s most admired literary critic also had his doubts about Franz Kafka, the writer of the moment, suspecting that the claims being made for the late Prague fabulist were exaggerated. But still, like almost everyone else, especially the young, in New York’s intellectual circles Wilson was intensely curious about what had been written and thought in occupied Europe, especially in France.
“Our generation had been brought up on the remembrance of the 1920s as the great golden age of the avant-garde, whose focal point had been Paris,” William Barrett writes in The Truants, his memoir of the New York intellectuals. “We expected history to repeat itself: as it had been after the First, so it would be after the Second World War.” The glamorous rumor of existentialism seemed to vindicate their expectations. Camus’s arrival was eagerly awaited not only by Partisan Review but also by the New Yorker, which put him in “The Talk of the Town,” and Vogue, which decided that his saturnine good looks resembled Humphrey Bogart’s. Read more…
Eric Foner | Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad | W. W. Norton & Company | January 2015 | 31 minutes (8,362 words)
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The history of slavery, and of fugitive slaves, in New York City begins in the earliest days of colonial settlement. Under Dutch rule, from 1624 to 1664, the town of New Amsterdam was a tiny outpost of a seaborne empire that stretched across the globe. The Dutch dominated the Atlantic slave trade in the early seventeenth century, and they introduced slaves into their North American colony, New Netherland, as a matter of course. The numbers remained small, but in 1650 New Netherland’s 500 slaves outnumbered those in Virginia and Maryland. The Dutch West India Company, which governed the colony, used slave labor to build fortifications and other buildings, and settlers employed them on family farms and for household and craft labor. Slavery was only loosely codified. Slaves sued and were sued in local courts, drilled in the militia, fought in Indian wars, and married in the Dutch Reformed Church. When the British seized the colony in 1664, New Amsterdam had a population of around 1,500, including 375 slaves. Read more…
[Fiction] A story about an unemployed ethnomusicologist, gray whales, and Miranda July:
‘Garfield was my favorite president,’ said Brandon.
‘James A. Garfield?’ said Kara. ‘President from March to July of 1881?’
‘From Ohio?’ she said.
‘That’s the one,’ said Brandon.
He said: ‘I think he would have proven to be an effective leader if he’d been given the chance.’
Charles put his hand on Kara’s knee.
‘That’s funny,’ said Charles. ‘Garfield’s killer, Charles Guiteau, is my favorite presidential assassin, and it’s not just because we share a name.’
A father and son visit a collector of Nazi paraphernalia in the mountains of southwestern North Carolina:
My father glanced over his shoulder at me and emitted a wheeze-burst of laughter—an exhalation intended to express disbelief. He had led me to an underground vault containing the artifacts of the last century’s most brutal regime, and he now seemed downright giddy. I, on the other hand, didn’t know what to think or what to say. I found it difficult to process what any of this meant. That is, I didn’t know why it was here, how it had gotten from where it had been made to where it was now. Were we in the presence of some kind of monster? Or had he created this space for stuff he deemed historically significant, buried it in a moisture-controlled vault because he fancied himself one of history’s unbiased curators? Was this the product of an obsessive and sympathetic mind, one which interpreted the mainstream records of history as having been unduly cruel to the Third Reich, which had been a movement, in his eyes, about nationalism, about ancestors, about revering and honoring the past? I didn’t know. And, honestly, I was afraid to ask.
We asked a few writers and editors to choose some of their favorite stories of the year in various categories. Here, the best in science writing.
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A freelance writer in Brooklyn.
The Amateur Cloud Society That (Sort of) Rattled the Scientific Community (Jon Mooallem, The New York Times Magazine)
Whenever one of Mooallem’s stories come out, I pretty much drop what I’m working on, kick back on my couch, and read it with a big, stupid grin. This delightful piece about a self-professed “idler” who discovers a new type of cloud is the perfect match between writer and subject matter. I guarantee that the moment you start reading, you, too, will float away from whatever it is you probably should be doing.
I was blown away by this investigation into a global super court that allows businesses to strip countries of their ability to enforce environmental regulations. “Known as investor-state dispute settlement, or ISDS, this legal system is written into a vast network of treaties that set the rules for international trade and investment,” Hamby writes. “Of all the ways in which ISDS is used, the most deeply hidden are the threats, uttered in private meetings or ominous letters, that invoke those courts.” This is the second part of Hamby’s series on the ISDS, and it focuses on an Australian company that was able to strip-mine inside a protected forest in Indonesia. Even though the company was complicit in the beating and, in one case, killing of protestors, the government was too cowed by the court to revoke the company’s permit. Read more…
Michael Walsh & Don Jordan | The King’s Revenge: Charles II and the Greatest Manhunt in British History | Pegasus Books | August 2016 | 26 minutes (6,559 words)
The excerpt below is adapted from The King’s Revenge, by Michael Walsh and Don Jordan. The story takes place in the wake of the English Civil War, fought between the Parliamentarians (“Roundheads”), who favored limitations on the king’s power and had the support of radical Protestant religious minorities (such as Puritans), and the Royalists (“Cavaliers”), who were loyal to the throne and were mostly members of the Church of England. In 1649, the victorious Roundheads tried and executed the king, Charles I. After the coronation of his son Charles II in 1661, known as the Great Restoration, Charles launched a global manhunt for the 59 judges who signed his father’s death warrant, as well as the court officials who tried the case, collectively known as the “regicides.”
Many of the regicides fled to other countries, and below we found out what happened to those who fled to America, as well as to those were pursued by an American in Europe. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.
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If what he had done against the King were to be done again, he would do it again.
The spring of 1661 was significant not only for the crowning of the king. Hitherto Charles had paid little attention to the capture of regicides abroad, but that was about to change. As carpenters sweated over the erection of those magnificent coronation arches with their dual themes of royal triumph and revenge, Charles unleashed his bloodhounds in America and Europe. Two royalists set out from Boston to lead a hunt across New England for Whalley and Goffe, and the most ruthless operator in the king’s service was drafted in to spearhead a search across Europe for Ludlow and the other nineteen regicides who had escaped in 1660.
The American manhunt was launched on May 6 by John Endecott, governor of Massachusetts. Endecott had received an arrest order from the king which, dispensing with flowery courtesies, had been brutally curt:
Trusty and well-beloved,
We greet you well. We being given to understand that Colonel Whalley and Colonel Goffe, who stand here convicted for the execrable murder of our Royal Father, of glorious memory, are lately arrived at New England, where they hope to shroud themselves securely from the justice of our laws; our will and pleasure is, and we do hereby expressly require and command you forthwith upon the receipt of these our letters, to cause both the said persons to be apprehended, and with the first opportunity sent over hither under a strict care, to receive according to their demerits. We are confident of your readiness and diligence to perform your duty; and so bid you farewell.
Maria Bustillos | Longreads | September 2016 | 40 minutes (10,049 words)
In the first days of 2014, in her senior year at Oberlin and just a few days before the winter term she’d arranged to spend in France, my daughter Carmen’s legs went numb. First her feet got all tingly, then her ankles, calves, and knees. Over three days or so, the numbness crept up to the base of her rib cage, and then stopped. But it didn’t go away—a weird sensation all in her skin, almost as if the whole lower half of her body had been anesthetized. Shingles, the internist told us—really?—okay. The acupuncturist, too, told us he’d been seeing anomalous cases of shingles cropping up in younger people. Carmen seemed to get a little better, and off she went to Paris; the tingling and numbness subsided slowly over the next several weeks, just as we’d been told they would, and the episode faded from memory. But about a year later, they came back again: Not shingles, after all.
Carmen in a hospital bed, uncharacteristically quiet and gloomy, the dark jungle of her curls against slick, plasticky polyester pillowcases. IV steroids, and more and more tests. Legs pretty numb, still. From pregnancy onward, I imagine, most parents harbor a cold little drop of inward fear, even as each day passes peaceful and undisturbed, through birth and babyhood and all the playdates and sleepovers and math tests, rock shows and summer vacations; at any moment, perhaps, from out of nowhere, comes the pounce. Here it is, then. Multiple sclerosis: I didn’t know anything about it really, beyond calamity, wheelchairs, and Annette Funicello. Instant by instant I composed my face and steeled myself as best I could for… what?
For every cliché in the world, naturally. A soul-wracked family, just like the ones you’ll see every day on the Lifetime Channel and the evening news; a brave young person, scared and in trouble; you register a fleeting hope that things will work out for them, in fact or fiction, as you flick to the next station. Now it’s your turn, but you won’t be changing the channel. Can this thing be treated? What is it? How do I discover how bad this will get? Or maybe let me just jump out this motherfucking window this minute, because I’m going to die of the panic alone. Read more…